Dinner and a Movie
By Steve Herte
Given a choice of Monster Trucks and La La Land, which would you choose? Of the movies playing at the right time in the right location, that was my dilemma. I’m that rare kind of guy who loves a good musical. Yes, they’re often sappy and sometimes a stretch to the imagination, but just as often they can be memorable and even endearing. When this happens, situations in life recall a show tune and make one laugh in a sad time or get misty in a happy one. Granted, some of them make you wonder what the producers were thinking but, thankfully, those are few and far between. Enjoy!
La La Land (Lionsgate, 2016) – Director: Damien Chazelle. Writer: Damien Chazelle. Stars: Ryan Gosling, Emma Stone, Amiee Conn, Terry Walters, Thom Shelton, Cinda Adams, Callie Hernandez, Jessica Rothe, Sonoya Mizuno, Rosemarie DeWitt, J.K. Simmons, Claudine Claudio, Jason Fuchs, D.A. Wallach, & Trevor Lissauer. Color, Rated PG-13, 128 minutes.
Growing up I’ve been accused many times of being in “La-La Land,” a kind of disoriented state bordering on confusion and indecision. So naturally I took the title of this film to indicate a crazy, anything-goes trip set to music and I delayed seeing it. Then I heard that it won all seven Golden Globe Awards it was nominated for and that piqued my curiosity. On top of that, it was nominated for a record-tying 14 Academy Awards. Hoping it was a parody or a satire on Hollywood musicals, I took the chance.
The movie opens on a traffic jam on the on-ramp to a Los Angeles freeway. No vehicle can move. So what do they do? Get out of their cars and start the big opening number, “Another Day of Sun,” of course. All the drivers can sing in harmony, dance lightly between and on the cars, skateboard and bicycle to the joyous music coming from nowhere and everywhere. The typical opening for a typical Hollywood show and mildly humorous considering the situation.
However, the film coasts downhill from there. It follows a familiar formula with a few twists. Boy meets girl, girl snubs boy. Girl meets boy again, this time he snubs her. They meet a third time and gradually fall in love. They tell each other their dreams and give each other encouragement. The dreams don’t sync with each other. Boy loses girl and they both dream about how it might have been if they could do it over. That’s it.
Sebastian (Gosling) is a jazz pianist and purist who wants to open his own club, not just anywhere, but on the spot occupied by a Samba/Tapas restaurant. He resents the concept, especially because the building has historic jazz heritage. Mia (Stone) is not exactly the stereotypical waitress auditioning for parts in plays. She’s a barista in a coffee shop on a Hollywood lot and doesn’t have to walk far for her auditions. She’s been at this for six years and wants to put on a one-woman play she wrote, which is doomed to failure.
Needless to say, including musical numbers, this movie should not be two hours and eight minutes long. Especially, when the featured song, “City of Lights” insinuates itself into every scene after its first appearance, like “Lara’s Theme” in Doctor Zhivago. If it was as good as “Lara’s Theme” it would not be that intrusive. Yet it won the Golden Globe. Randy Newman, where are you this year? At least his songs are memorable.
I was squirming in my seat telling myself, they can’t be serious. It must be a spoof. But aside from the opening, it’s didn't pull me in like a hooked fish. The dialogue is hokey and should evoke laughter but only does so occasionally. The acting is forced and the choreography (with the exception of the waltz) was cramped and clumsy. I understand that Ryan Gosling learned tap dancing just for this role. It was good for the three seconds he got to demonstrate his expertise. There were many missed opportunities for glory, late dance steps (even in the waltz through the stars in the Griffith Observatory) and too many dead spaces that had me mentally shouting, “Move it!”
Gosling was a believable character most of the time, but despite her big eyes, Emma Stone’s wooden acting could have been accomplished by a department store manikin.
The one song I did like, “(What a Waste of) A Lovely Night,” sung gazing at the typical view of L.A. from the Hollywood Hills, was cheapened by the dance routine involving (for some, hopefully comic reason) dragging of feet as a part of the “style.” If this was parody, it wasn’t funny.
Did I have a favorite character? Yes, when J.K. Simmons shows up as a restaurant owner who fires Sebastian for disobeying his rule of “Christmas songs only” at his establishment. La La Land promised more than it delivered and could have been a really great comic musical with the right stars, choreographer and editor.
Rating: 2 out of 5 Martini glasses.
58 W. 38th St., New York
With the change in relations between the governments of the U.S. and Cuba, and the nearness of this restaurant to my theater on a rainy night, I chose to visit my sixth Cuban cuisine restaurant. Havana NY advertises itself as “authentic” Cuban food and has been in operation since 1991 for good reason. It’s that great.
A cool blue glow emanates from the bar on the left as I confirmed my reservation. I was led to the main dining area, a beautiful room made to look like an arcade with faux fieldstone arches leading to a street scene in Havana, complete with a parked 1950’s style car, and was seated on a leather banquette facing the arches on the opposite wall.
My server, Jesus, introduced himself and asked if I would like a cocktail. I asked him what a typical Cuban would order. “Mojitos, of course!” I agreed to this refreshing cocktail (meaning “a little wet” in Spanish) consisting of rum, lime, mint leaves, sugar and club soda. As I generally eschew the flavor of mint except in certain dishes, I was careful where I order this drink. It was excellent and I told Jesus it was the best one I’ve ever had. (I just didn’t have the heart to tell him it the first one I’ve ever had.) Jesus beamed with pride.
I mulled over the many selections on the two-page menu while sipping my drink. And just when I had my choices made, another server appeared to take my order. The efficiency was impressive. No wonder no table sat vacant for long, even though I viewed this crowd as theater-goers who would disappear in a half-hour.
I wanted to choose dishes new to me, and since black bean soup was familiar, I chose Sopa de Frijoles Rojos (red bean soup). It was the definition of “hearty” with a thick broth, chunks of potato, onion and of course, lots of red beans. Very good.
Obvious to me was my choice of wine, a 2014 Campo Viejo Tempranillo from Spain (I really did look for a Cuban wine, but there were none) and it was delightful. The delicate spice of the nose and the medium body red accompanied all of the dishes with a flamenco flair.
My second course was new to me. The Papas Rellenas de Carne – potato puffs stuffed with beef – was as unusual as it was tasty. Imagine mashed potatoes formed into a ball around ground beef and then deep fried, served with a creamy dressing, and garnished with red cabbage and corn. People have asked me if it was spicy. No, none of my dishes were spicy in the least. Just good, honest, natural flavored food. The closest Cubans get to spice is garlic. These were wonderful. I was rapidly becoming full and I knew what was yet to arrive. Both of the people at the next table had ordered it and I saw the size of the portion.
As Jesus had listed the specials of the day, the last one hooked me: a fist-sized pork shank served with a mesa of browned rice and black beans and garnished once again with red cabbage and corn. The meat was tender enough to fall off the bone and just fatty enough to be rich. The rice and beans were a little dry, but mixed with the meat and the dark gravy, they were great. I finished the pork shank and bravely challenged the remaining rice and beans, but even with my wine, could not finish them. I had to save room for dessert.
Jesus was enthusiastic about dessert and touted the Churros (think sugar-coated doughnuts formed into logs with a sweet dipping sauce). They would prove too heavy for me.
Then he cited the Pan Leche as being very good. I agreed. A true Pan Leche is a sweet bread made with milk and looks something like a Parker House roll when finished. This was actually a Tres Leches cake with a white icing made also from milk on a beautiful square white plate decorated with a white and dark chocolate sauce skillfully placed to look like an ornamental border. The cake was moist, sweet and was heaven when dipped in that attractive scrolls of the sauce.
I asked Jesus if there was such a thing as Cuban coffee and soon I had the cross-breed between espresso and cappuccino, a dark Cuban Espresso with a foam topping. Next to it was a sweet confection made from coconut. Very nice. And how to finish off an authentic Cuban dinner? Jesus knew, and brought me a snifter of Vizcaya VXOP rum, a true taste of old (19th century) Havana. I think, If I liked cigars and they were allowed, I would have been totally Cubanized. The manager gave me a nod and offered to get me a second glass. I took a rain check on that for my next visit.
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